Catholic vote vs. Catholic voters (updated)

stange 12colorTim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times is a columnist and, thus, tends to produce the kinds of opinion-driven pieces that we don't deal with a lot here at GetReligion. However, we will mention op-ed pieces and work in advocacy journals (you know, like Newsweek) when we think the topic will be of interest to journalists who cover the religion beat. Whether you agree with him or not, Rutten is genuinely fascinated with the role that religion plays in American politics and culture. He wrote a piece the other day -- "The end of the Catholic vote -- Obama's lead among Catholic voters may signal a profound shift" -- that deserves some careful thought.

Now, the minute you GetReligion readers scan that headline, one question should pop into your heads: "OK, which Catholic vote are we talking about?"

Rutten opens with the basic history, from the role of Catholics in the Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt era until the rise of the Reagan Democrats. It is in that context that we read:

Karl Rove, Bush's strategic eminence grise, thought he'd found a way to pry Catholics, as ostensible social conservatives, out of the Democratic embrace and into a new conservative coalition using so-called wedge issues -- such as abortion, same-sex marriage and aid to parochial schools and social service agencies.

That approach isn't working for John McCain, particularly in Pennsylvania, where strategists in both parties seem to agree the Republican nominee's chances will rise or fall. ... In fact, nearly one-third of all Pennsylvanians are Catholics, and in recent weeks, McCain's candidacy has received a major boost from their clerical leaders. Last week, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia wrote in his archdiocesan newspaper: "The transcending issue of our day is the intentional destruction of innocent human life, as in abortion ... [and] no intrinsic evil can ever be supported in any way."

Yet Obama is leading McCain in Pennsylvania and a recent New York Times/CBS poll showed Obama maintaining a 59 percent to 31 percent lead among Catholics -- everywhere.

So what is going on? I think it is crucial, at this point, to remember that there is no one Catholic vote. There are multiple Catholic votes and different ways to divide it, including region, age and ethnicity. Here at GetReligion, we kind of like to focus on the role that religious practice and doctrine play in the news, so I am fond of the typology that a veteran Catholic priest in Washington, D.C., gave me a few years ago. He argued that there are four Catholic votes. Any poll that lumps all of these groups together is basically meaningless.

* Ex-Catholics. Solid for the Democrats. GOP has no chance.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter -- check out that classic Atlantic Monthly tribes of American religion piece -- depending on what is happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after.

* The "sweats the details" Roman Catholic who goes to confession. Is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican, when it comes to matters of faith and practice. This is where the GOP has made its big gains in recent decades, but it is a very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

how vote catholic gw imageNow, with those categories in mind, let's read the end of Rutten's piece:

What we're seeing in these three swing states is the end of the Catholic vote, as conventional political strategists traditionally have expected it to behave -- in part because it's now so large it pretty much looks like the rest of America; in part because of its own internal changes. National polls have shown for some time that, although Catholics are personally opposed to abortion, they believe it ought to be legal in nearly identical percentages to the rest of America. Moreover, as a survey by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found earlier this year, only 18% of Catholics "strongly" agree with the statement: "In deciding what is morally acceptable, I look to the church teachings and statements by the pope and bishops to form my conscience." ...

What all this suggests is that, in this and coming election cycles, we may see a new model for the Catholic vote, one whose participation more closely resembles that of Jews, 75% of whom are overwhelmingly pro-Democratic, while a devout minority, the Orthodox, tends more strongly Republican. If you break the Catholic vote down in roughly the same pattern, you get something that looks like the current national spread. According to most reliable data, slightly less than one in four Catholics now assist at weekly Mass and are more open to GOP policies, while the overwhelming majority of their co-religionists have cast their lot with the Democrats' domestic and foreign policies.

So, what do the bishops think of that?

I continue to argue that one of the most interesting stories in American religion, right now, is the status of confession in the Roman Catholic faith. Chase that story and you will run into all kinds of interesting material. Some of it will even be political and, thus, real news as defined by most editors.

UPDATE: OK, here's a new roundup of some fresh material on these issues from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and the omnipresent expert John Green is in the house.

Please respect our Commenting Policy